Carlo Bergonzi, Leading Italian Tenor, Dies at 90

Sunday, July 27, 2014 - 07:00 PM

The Italian opera singer Carlo Bergonzi, known as the leading Verdi stylist of his generation, died in Milan on Friday. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Bel Canto Society, an organization devoted to the history of opera singing.

Bergonzi, who turned 90 on July 14, was known for using a large and velvety voice with remarkable taste and discretion. While he was the first to admit that his physique and stage presence were less than ideal for the operatic stage – telling the New York Times in 1981, "I know I don't look like Rudolph Valentino" – he was nonetheless a widely admired performer.

After an early stint as a baritone, Bergonzi made his debut as a tenor at Milan's La Scala in 1953. He debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1956 and went on to sing there more than 300 times, opposite celebrated divas like Risë Stevens, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. He excelled in Verdi but he also acclaimed as Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore), Rodolfo (La Boheme) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly).

A 1970 television concert performance in Lucca, Italy shows him at his vocal prime, singing "Donna non vidi mai" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

In a 1988 review of Verdi's Luisa Miller from the Met, Associated Press critic Mary Campbell wrote that Bergonzi sang the role of Rodolfo "just the way an operagoer wants to hear it." She continued: “Bergonzi, who is from Vidalenzo, Italy, does have a clear voice. He doesn't add romantic mannerisms or widen his notes lushly, but his tone is so beautiful that his voice sounds romantic.”

Bergonzi preserved his voice well and continued to sing into the 1990s, giving farewell recitals at Covent Garden (1992) and Carnegie Hall (1994). But the tenor had his inevitable limits. In May 2000, at age 76, he returned to Carnegie to sing the punishing role of Otello, abandoning the performance after showing evident signs of strain in the first act.

After his retirement from opera, Bergonzi continued to work as a teacher. He also ran a Verdi singing competition and managed a hotel near his home in Busseto, Italy. He is survived by his wife, Adele.

Also see tributes from Tom Huizenga at NPR Music and from Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. Below: Bergonzi sings "E lucevan le stelle" on a 1981 Canadian television broadcast (YouTube).


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Comments [10]

June Tantillo from Manasquan, New Jersey

It was my pleasure to hear Carlo Bergonzi sing live many times. Two of the most memorable performances were his Metropolitan Opera 25th Anniversary Concert in 1981 and his Farewell Recital at Carnegie Hall in 1994. His voice had such a distinctive beauty and his stage presence was absolutely mesmerizing. When he was singing on stage your eyes never left him and the sound was glorious! Whenever I am in need of some beautiful and inspiring music to listen to I so often turn to his recording of "Italian Songs" or to his album of Neapolitan Songs, "Canzoni Napolitane". Thank you Mr. Bergonzi. You will be missed!

Jul. 29 2014 08:44 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I remember those Omnibus lectures and they were a fine look at the different types of classical music. Bernstein made it interesting. I guess I have to write something nice about him rather than the usual snarky remarks. Trio tv televised some of these but has now become Ovation and the quality has gone down in its programming. Ovation does not even show the Nutcracker during the Christmas season. If they are shown, it is in the morning. Who the hell watches tv in the morning other than bored housewives. This is my first snarky remark of the day.

Jul. 29 2014 07:32 AM
Howard from Florida

As a side note, all those who remember seeing one of Leonard Bernstein's "Omnibus" lectures, "What Makes Opera Grand?", live on NBC on March 23, 1958 --- and available for posterity with the others on DVD --- will remember or will discover Bergonzi singing Rodolfo in the closing moments of Act III from "La Bohe'me" with colleagues Marcella Pobbe, Frank Guarrera, Laurel Hurley and Calvin Marsh. Bernstein conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. To my knowledge, this is the only video document of Bergonzi singing an extended extract from a Puccini opera, and in his glorious prime.

Jul. 28 2014 05:55 PM
Hendrik Sadi from Yonker, NY

A Great tenor has left us. He was my favorite. I would always compare other tenors with him and found that most of them fell quite short. You just have to listen to him sing "Come un bel di di maggio" from Andrea Chenier to know why.

Jul. 28 2014 09:21 AM
Ron Rosenfeld from Floral Park NY

I remember having lunch at Signore Bergonzi's restaurant in Bussetto,after visiting Verdi's home.The entire experience was wonderful

Jul. 28 2014 09:07 AM
Madison from Manhattan

Wonderful tenor whom I saw numerous times starting with a Canio @ the old Met in 1959 and ending with his farewell Carnegie Hall recital.

Jul. 28 2014 08:33 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I've long felt Mr. Bergonzi was an impeccable stylist and an honest singer who didn't stoop to grandstanding (with possibly one excepton). Rodolfo in "Luisa Miller" and Riccardo in "Un Ballo in Maschera" are two of the many roles I think showed him to best advantage. I'm also grateful that many recordings and video tapes exist of hisj performances, including the celebratory concert with pianist Vincenzo Scalera he performed at Carnegie Hall and also at HBO Studios (I think) in 1985, "Bergonzi Celebrates Gigli". Parenthetically, at one of his final recitals in New York, he sang "O Sole Mio" with the embellishment (mordant? inverted mordant? that Pavarotti added. The audience just went wild! Perhaps this is the only incident of "grandstanding" in the great tenor's career.

Jul. 28 2014 06:49 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

He had his moments and I have happy memories of his singing. First learned of his death on Facebook.

Jul. 28 2014 06:35 AM

I'm glad I got to see him live at the MET. Unfortunately, he was a bit past his prime. His Nemorino was not quite believable (even taking into account suspension of disbelief). DD~~

p.s. "celebrated" divas (not "celebrate")

Jul. 28 2014 01:05 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Bergonzi was a stylish and popular singer who like a number of others made the transition from baritone to tenor.Like Domingo,he had troubles with high notes,including failing to hit the concluding high B-flat in "Celeste Aida" on more than one occasion.He nonetheless had a successful career,and has been remembered fondly in the opera world.

Jul. 27 2014 08:56 PM

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